The International African American Museum sits on a past site of the slave tradeImage: Ellis Creek Photograph

By Nadine Wojcik/

The new International African American Museum (IAAM) was purposely built on pillars as a means of reconciling the trauma of the site’s deep ties to slavery.

The vast institution was constructed on the former Gadsden’s Wharf, a pier in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina where about 40% of all enslaved Africans set foot on American soil. It was one of the largest slave ports in the world.

From the concept to planning and finally the opening ceremony on June 22, completing this important cultural space took 20 years — due in part to funding issues, the pandemic and structural problems.

IAAM opens to the public on June 27, 2023.

A slave story of trauma and triumph

The International African American Museum does not present a chronology of events but is designed to “simultaneously hold the sensations of trauma and joy,” explained museum director, Tonya Matthews.

Ghana: Commemorating 400 years of slavery

The first shipment of African slaves reached the USA in 1619. This is why Ghana declared 2019 a year of remembrance. Under the motto “Year of Return”, the African diaspora is also being encouraged to come back to Ghana.

Image: picture-alliance/CPA Media

Remembering ancestors

50-year-old Abdul Sumud Shaibu shows a picture of his grandfather on his smartphone. “Look at his height,” he says. “My ancestors were giants. Strong and well built.” Some of his ancestors even fought against slave hunters, Shaibu says. Sometimes they won but not every time. Losing meant a lifetime of slavery.

Image: Reuters/F. Kokoroko

Abdul Sumud Shaibu, 50, showing a picture of his grandfather on his smartphone.

On the way to Portugal

Slave trade in West Africa flourished long before the first slaves were sold to the United States of America. By the end of the 15th century, Portuguese ships were bringing African slaves to the country. Occupied by the Europeans in the following decades and centuries, the African west coast turned into a hub for slave export.

Image: Imago Images/Leemage

A illustration by Giorgio Albertini from 1482 shows slaves being loaded on ships on the Guinea coast to be sent to Portugal.

Transatlantic triangular trade

The system was called triangular trade because major European powers brought goods such as weapons, textiles or alcohol to the West African coast, to be traded for slaves. From Africa the ships would sail to America, where the slaves were exchanged for coveted raw materials such as tea, coffee or cotton. These goods were then shipped back to Europe.

Image: gemeinfrei

An illustratIon from 1859 shows how an African village is burned down and the villagers are taken into slavery.

Cruel slave voyages

The living conditions during the journey across the Atlantic, the so-called Middle Passage, were inhumane. All the space available on the slave ships was used down to the last centimeter. The slaves were literally stacked on top of each other. They were chained and did not get enough food or water. Sick slaves were simply thrown overboard to keep infections from spreading.

Image: picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library

A historical picture showing how the slaves were stacked to allow for the Middle Passage.

Work on the cotton fields

In the “New World” the slaves were forced to work on cotton and sugar cane plantations. While the owners of the plantations were wealthy, the slaves remained poor. Living conditions for these slaves were harsh. Others worked in the cities as longshoremen or in the household of their owners. Many were used by the mining industry. Punishments and abuse were prevalent.

Image: picture-alliance/CPA Media

A slave family picking cotton

Shackled and branded

For many slaves violence was a part of their everyday life. They were whipped, had to wear shackles and were marked with branding irons. Their so-called “owner” could decide whether they were allowed to enter into a relationship. Slaves had no rights and could only hope to be released at some point. These shackles are exhibited today in a museum in the Ivory Coast.

Image: Reuters/L. Gnago

Shackles used during the crossing of the Atlantic.

Millions of Africans enslaved

The transatlantic slave trade reached its peak in the 18th century. West Africans accounted for about two thirds of African slaves brought to America. This map shows the coastal ports from which the ships set sail. It is not known how many Africans exactly were enslaved. Estimates point to 40 million people.

Image: gemeinfrei

A historical map showing the ports of departure of slaves on the West African coast.

German slave traders

The Elector of Brandenburg, Friedrich Wilhelm, had the “Groß Friedrichsburg” colony built on today’s Ghanaian coast. Ghana was called “Gold Coast” at the time of the slave trade. From there the Brandenburgers took part in the triangular trade, shipping about 30,000 slaves from 1685 on to the so-called “New World”.

Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

Major Friedrich von der Gröben seizing the colony in 1682 as depicted in an old illustration.

Honoring the dead

In Adidwan, a village in Ghana’s Ashanti region, Nana Assenso visits the grave of his great-uncle Kwame Badu. His relative was named in memory of an ancestor who long ago was sold as a slave. Since then, the name has been passed on through the generations in the family. Nana Assenso’s son is also called Kwame Badu.

Image: Reuters/F. Kokoroko

Nana Assenso visiting the grave of his great uncle Kwame Badu In Adidwan .

The Nuhalenya Ada memorial

An installation by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto Bamfo in the village of Nuhalenya Ada commemorates the enslaved ancestors. Although the British banned the slave trade in 1808 and this ban was confirmed by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, slavery wasn’t really abolished until around 1870. Today, the ruins of the former slave fortresses on Ghana’s coast are a reminder of this era.

Image: Reuters/K. A. Bamfo

An installation by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto Bamfo  shows ancestors sold into slavery. The clay figures are stuck in mud up to their breast or their chin.

Permanent exhibits, dozens of artifacts and more than 30 works of art honor the many thousands of Africans who were forced to leave their homes under barbaric conditions. At the same time, IAAM showcases the significant and important impact people of African background have on all aspects of contemporary US life.

“It’s acknowledging that there were communities and civilizations and people that we were taken from,” Matthews told CNN. “It’s also acknowledging that once we got to where we were, we also began to build communities and civilizations.”

The exhibition spaces in the $120 million (€109 million) museum feature both historic tribal and contemporary art, reflecting the work of many generations of artists.

Slaves were renamed

In one room in the museum, black walls are engraved with African names like Wogue, Seesah and Eriyah, along with the person’s age. Some slaves were just toddlers when they were forced to make the perilous journey from West Africa crammed into a ship’s hold. Many did not survive the grueling journey.

One room over, names are also engraved on walls such as Linda, David and Hardtimes, even if these were the names the slaves were given upon arrival. The names were found in the freight and sales records kept at Gadsden’s Wharf, which was built in the 1760s by then-Governor, Christopher Gadsden.

An estimated 100,000 slaves are said to have arrived there. Accessible to all, monuments dedicated to the slaves who landed there and those who did not survive the crossing have been set up at the historic wharf.

Across generations

The Center for Family History is a special highlight. It provides a much needed resource for African-American families: Using sales contracts, property records and other records, people can trace their family history over several generations.

Specialized databases and experienced genealogists are available to help track down the names and histories of relatives. Some searches turn up long-hidden evidence of successful ancestral resistance that has awakened new pride in many a family tree.

This article was originally written in German.

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